Cooperation, cuddles, & yawns

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.

Love

I'm finally feeling better, and more importantly, so is my son!

Last week, I wrote a story about a mage who becomes so powerful he becomes essentially a god. He's very good at manipulating biology ā€” later known as The Realmwalker, Savali is the guy who created the lactating egglayers I've been writing so much about lately. In the pre-history of Verraine, he discovers the secrets of love and immortality.

To make sure that was plausible, I wanted to know more about the chemistry of love.

Quick Facts

  • Injecting adrenocorticotrophic and melanocyte-stimulating peptides into the brains of laboratory mammal makes them stretch and yawn repeatedly. It also sexually excites them, which feels like a weird overlap...
  • Synthetic oxytocin (the "cuddle" hormone) can be administered via a simple nasal spray. It makes people less stressed out when they're socially snubbed (which bothers women more than men, by the way). It also dampens the startle reflex and decreases jealousy.
  • Women in love are more fertile, experiencing lower free testosterone levels and higher follicle-stimulating hormone levels.
  • People in the early romantic phase of a love relationship have a lot in common with people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Species who secrete oxytocin are typically broadly cooperative, rather than independently evolving individual ways of cooperating on individual points; it's hard to chemically induce "just" falling in love.

Vaccines & Antidotes

A "cure for love" has been sought for thousands of years; ancient philosophers and doctors prescribed bloodletting, exercise, and phlebotomies for "lovesick" individuals. It sounds silly (the research paper literally references Harry Potter), but modern neuroscience and psychopharmacology are getting close to figuring out how to make it real. Anti-androgen drugs (think "chemical castration") are just the beginning; one goal is to find a way to help people leaving abusive relationships to stop loving their former partners. Other possibilities include a "love vaccine" to help seminary students keep from falling in love inappropriately.

A Mammal Thing

Although mammals aren't the only creatures able to form life-long pair bonds ā€” birds are actually more likely to pair bond ā€” we're the only ones who produce oxytocin. It evolved from nonapeptides found in all vertabrates and some invertebrates; they impact spawning, courtship, copulation and egg-laying. These chemicals are useful for helping provide the emotional control necessary for successful reproduction and related social interactions. Oxytocin activity in the brains of infant mammals (stimulated by things like mothers licking and kissing their babies) impacts how the neurochemical systems regulating adult social behavior develop.

Proxy Lovers

Prairie voles are the preferred rodent proxy for studying pair bonding in humans. Monogamously mated prairie vole males injected with a dopamine blocker stopped trying to guard their mates and became a lot more willing to mate with new females. Scientists injected arginine vasopressin (a neuropetide also relevant for mother-child bonding) into the lateral septum of the brain, which caused the prairie voles to form partner preferences. They also managed to block pair bonding by injecting drugs to keep the relevant receptors from getting the relevant chemicals.

Pathologizing Life

Bioethicists are already having debates about the medicalization of love, and most of the articles are depressingly vague and wishy-washy when it comes to policy implications. "Could plausibly be expected to have either good or bad consequences depending upon how it unfolds" is my favorite mealy-mouthed phrase, although it's coming from an article that's explicitly in favor of chemical interference in love (which is not just theoretical!). Arguments seem to be along the same lines as the "over-prescription of Prozac for depression is the medicalization of misery" and "over-prescription of Ritalin in stubborn boys is the medicalization of childhood" debates.


šŸ“— If you found this interesting, make sure you also read the edition about how hunting impacts testosterone levels.

šŸ’š If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.

šŸ’‰ Do you have an opinion about the medicalization of life & love? Please reach out ā€” I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.

Comments

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